Obama's Small Donors vs. Congress' Big Money?

07/02/2008 05:12 am ET | Updated May 25, 2011

You can hear editorial boards across the country wringing their hands: Does Sen. Barack Obama's decision to reject public financing for the presidential campaign signal the death of publicly financed elections? Is it possible that Obama, the one who's inspired millions to become involved in politics, is to blame?

The truth is that the public financing system for presidential races has long been outmoded and the blame for the system's failure is at Congress' doorstep, not Obama's. Lawmakers had years to modernize the system while campaign spending has skyrocketed. Congress' resistance makes it clear that it will take a significant effort to get it done.

Others have suggested that the emergence of small donors in the presidential race eliminates the need for public financing, or that it is a form of public financing itself. That's not true either.

First, of the $294 million raised by Obama's campaign through May this year, $137.9 million, or 47 percent, has come in amounts less than $200. That's impressive. But it's a success built on the shoulders of large donations. In the critical first nine months of 2007, Obama relied heavily on larger donations to get his campaign off the ground -- 74 percent of his first $80.3 million was from donations above $200.

More importantly, Obama himself doesn't equate his experience with eliminating the need for public financing. Quite the opposite. Obama wrote in USA Today:

"I wholeheartedly agree with the idea that we need to limit the influence of big donors on campaigns, and I've co-sponsored legislation to fix the system -- legislation Sen. McCain does not support. I am firmly committed to reforming the system as president, so that it's viable in today's campaign climate."

Second, the small donor revolution isn't really taking place anywhere but Sen. Obama's campaign at this time. According to a study by the Campaign Finance Institute, less than 10 percent of the $447 million raised by House candidates through March 31, 2008, came from donations of $200 or less. Just eight percent of incumbents' contributions have come from these small donations. For challengers and candidates in open seats, only 16 percent and 11 percent, respectively, comes in small donations of less than $200. These figures represent the same or a decrease in percentage, not an increase, from previous elections.

There is cause for alarm. Moneyed interests have recognized that change is coming. In early 2009, when a new Congress and president take their oaths of office, major issues like global warming, the health care crisis, a faltering economy, and the war in Iraq will await them. In each area, big moneyed interests had, until recently, placed their bets on the status quo and on Republicans. Now that's changing.

Whoever is elected president will face a Democratic-led Congress increasingly dependent on big donors from vested industries. According to the nonpartisan Center for Responsive Politics:

• Commercial banking interests now give half of their money to Democrats. From 1999 through 2006, big banking interests consistently gave nearly two-thirds of their donations to Republicans in each election cycle.

• From the 2000 to the 2006 elections, Big Pharma gave 70 percent of its donations to Republicans. But now, during this election cycle, they're giving more than half to Democrats.

• The insurance industry gave more than two of every three dollars to Republicans in the first four elections this decade. In 2008 the split is virtually dead even.

This shift is taking place in every major industry with business before Congress. Money is flowing to power. Go right down the line: Electric utility interests used to favor the GOP two-to-one. Now it's fifty-fifty. The defense sector's donations ran nearly 65 to 35 percent for the GOP. Now they favor Democrats by roughly five percent. HMOs have flipped their giving from 60-40 for the GOP to 60-40 for the Democrats. Even the oil and gas industry's donations have shifted by 18 percent toward the Democrats.

In short, big money is preemptively moving to congressional Democrats to blunt a 2009 agenda that addresses health care, global warming, and consumer issues. Since small donors account for so little of the giving to congressional candidates, the only way to blunt this systemic infusion of money long term is to replace it with public funds.

That's why it's critical that voters hold Obama accountable for his commitment to advance public financing legislation if he is elected. If his agenda stands any chance in Washington, he had better engage his army of supporters not only to work for that agenda, or to fix the presidential system. He must fight for congressional public financing as well.